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A New Leaf: Monthly Wine Tastings

Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

Writing a biweekly column is harder than I imagined. Not only do I have to write the article itself, but I have to conduct research (which costs money and gets me drunk, which might explain my grades last semester) and come up with fresh, interesting ideas. If I wanted to be fresh and interesting I would have gone for an MFA, not a JD.

To solve these myriad problems I decided to emulate my wine idol Eric Asimov, who, besides being the chief wine critic for The New York Times, is a nephew of the late science fiction writer. Mr. Asimov writes weekly and has two alternating columns. The first is called "The Pour" and consists of his writings on wine in general. The second is called "Wines of the Times" and consists of notes from tastings he conducts with certain other members of the Times staff.

Thus, I will be conducting monthly wine tastings for members of the Nota Bene. I hosted the first one at my apartment last Tuesday. The theme for the tasting was "Summer Wines"-wines that are light and refreshing enough to be enjoyed even during these last muggy days.

Unlike other wine tastings I've hosted, this Nota Bene tasting was disciplined. For instance, no finishing a bottle before going on to the next: instead, I poured small tastes of each wine in a steady progression and asked the participants to discuss and write their impressions on a number of criteria. These criteria were color (worth 3 points), nose (7), taste (15), body (5), finish (10), and overall impression (10). After assigning each wine a score on these criteria, they were summed up and added to a base score of 50; the total score a wine can receive is 100. I took each individual's total score and averaged them for each wine. Just for fun, I also asked the participants to guess each wine's price.

I was joined for this event by Heather Benton, Tim Frey, Yunji Kim, Jill Meek, Kate Mereand, Lauren Schmidt, and Terry Schoone-Jongen.

First up, a sparkling wine from Italy-the non-vintage Spumanti Gemin Prosecco di Valdobbiadene Brut. This spumanti (or spumante) smelled of tart green apples and had sort of a honeyed taste. However, it was "hot" and, well, not very good. Yunji wrote: "If this were a blind date, I wouldn't call again." Ouch. The average score for this wine was 80. Guesses for the price ranged from $13 to $20. It was $13.99.

Next we had the 2007 Christian Lauverjat "Perle Blanche" Sancerre. Sancerre is a region of the Loire Valley of France that is renowned for its Sauvignon Blanc, which in Sancerre is leaner and more minerally than examples from, say, New Zealand. I personally loved this wine: it was everything you could want from a good Sancerre, being clean, lean, laden with minerals, and full of bracing acidity. However, everyone else on the panel hated it. Terry wrote that "the smell alone could cut through a nice white sauce" (which may or may not be a vote of confidence), while Jill described the finish as having "a delightful aftertaste of dust and despair" (where'd you get the dust from, Jill?). This wine got the lowest score-76-and, while worth $21.99, was valued at $8.99 up to $25.00.

We followed up the Sancerre with the 2007 Dr. Konstantin Frank dry Riesling from the Finger Lakes region of New York, rated 93 points by Wine Spectator magazine. Dr. Frank was one of the pioneers of winemaking in America and in New York State. However, his trailblazing ways did not translate into success among the panelists. The nose was delicate and the taste was suggestive of melon, and the mouthfeel was pleasantly acidic with just a hint of petillance (light carbonation). However, as one writer noted there was a "metallic flavor at the end [which was] a bit of a turn-off," and ultimately I found this to be an uninspiring, though not insipid, example of Riesling. Valued at $20.99, people thought this was worth $11.00 to $30.00 and gave it a score of 85.

Rosés are wonderful summer wines and have been gaining much more acceptance in this country after Americans realized they were not restricted to white zinfandel. Rosés can be made from almost any red grape, and the 2008 Ave rosé is made from malbec. Malbec makes a powerful, sensual wine, and its rosé derivative was no exception. Multiple people found hints of strawberry jam on the nose (though I also found hints of Japanese red bean paste, which was loudly ridiculed by everyone else). This was big yet not necessarily over-the-top. Yunji characterized it as "the librarian who rides a Harley to tango in Buenos Aires." I guess that's good because people gave this the highest score-92. The Ave retails at $11.99, though people thought it was worth much more.

Now on to the reds! While most people don't equate reds with summer drinking, there are many lighter reds that wouldn't play second fiddle at a barbeque. I served one of my favorite wines, the 2007 Henry Fessy Moulin-à-Vent Beaujolais cru, and the panel gave it 91 points. People found this to be a complex wine, with everything from dirt to strawberry and raspberry on the nose and chocolate and berries in the mouth. Moulin-à-Vent is known as the most substantial Beaujolais cru, and the Henry Fessy lived up to that billing. Fortunately for law school students, this quality doesn't come at a high price. In fact, while many people guessed this wine to be $30-$40, it was actually only $17.99. They gave it a score of 91.

The last wine was one I had been looking forward to for a very long time. This was the 2006 Radio-Coteau "Savoy" pinot noir from the Anderson Valley of California. Radio-Coteau (meaning "broadcasting from the hillside" or, colloquially, "word of mouth") is relatively new to the scene but has already gained somewhat of a cult status. I aerated this bad boy in a decanter for about an hour, which was a good idea because it was still a bit closed upon first taste. The nose had the requisite black pepper, but we found notes of licorice, candied wasabi, ground mustard, and relish (come on, Tim!) as well. It was smoky, dark, and complicated, and had substantial tannins. The thing I liked the best about this wine, however, was that it had a very long, very pleasant finish. People scored this as a 91 and guessed it to be worth anywhere between $12 to $50. It was actually $70.99.

I think the Beaujolais and the pinot noir highlight the fact that you can drink good wine for very reasonable prices. Of course, you can pay $70 for a good wine as well, but did I think that the pinot was four times better than the Beaujolais? No.

Overall, I would personally recommend the Sancerre (against the vehement declamations of my peers) as a stellar wine at a terrific price. The panel recommends the Beaujolais, pinot, and rosé. These are all available at The Wine Specialist at 2115 M Street NW.